Mungai’s 24-year dream of becoming a doctor paid off

Whenever top candidates in national examinations are asked about their career aspirations, many of them have expressed dreams of becoming doctors.

One of the most powerful youthful dreams was captured by Time on July 20, 1959, when it featured a 34-year-old Kenyan. The young man was returning from United States to Kenya, which was still smouldering from 64 years of colonial repression.

The subject of the story was Njoroge Mungai, who had just graduated with a Master’s degree in medicine and was going back to his motherland burning with desire to treat the myriad health and societal afflictions.

His journey out of Kiambu in the late 1940s at a time when every adult had to seek permission from the government before venturing past the village home guards was daring.

Daunting too was his resolve to go to the US to study medicine, a course the government did not approve and so his journey was circuitous and torturous. It is a journey which could only have been undertaken by a very brave African who had nothing to lose.

Munyua Waiyaki’s wedding at PCEA Church Bahati, Nairobi. Jomo Kenyatta [l] , Charles Njonjo [second left] and Njoroge Mungai [r], 1963. [File, Standard]

Mungai, the son of a village shopkeeper, grew up at a time when people trusted traditional healers and their beads more than a stethoscope and scalpels.

His defining moment came when he was only nine years,  as he sat before a conventional doctor waiting for his boiling needle to be ready. He was distracted by the test tubes in the clinic and that is when he made a vow that one day, he too, would be a doctor.

And for more than two decades he doggedly pursued this dream, sidestepping hurdles his way by the government whose policy was that the best an African could be was a teacher or middle-level administrator. After completing his education at Alliance High School, Mungai set in his sights on America. To get there he had to study in South Africa, then to London and ultimately to the US.

He hawked, did odd jobs and even borrowed money to take his place at Stanford University in California for his studies but he ultimately triumphed.

From a sickly boy who just dreamt of medicine, he rose to be a Minster for Health, treated President Jomo Kenyatta as his personal doctor, started the first medical school and was responsible for bringing United Nations Environment Programme headquarters to Nairobi.

Although by the time he died in August 2014 at the age of 88 he had faded from public limelight, Mungai’s triumphs still inspire young ones who dare to dream with their eyes open to work towards achieving them.

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